"Not So with You"

For Sunday October 18, 2009

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Job 38:1–7, (34–41) or Isaiah 53:4–12

Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c or Psalm 91:9–16

Hebrews 5:1–10

Mark 10:35–45

           The humorist Dave Berry learned a thing or two on his summer internship in Washington forty years ago. But like many internships, his expectations met with very different realities. Years later, and with typical wit and wisdom, Berry deconstructed the distorted values that characterized those corridors of power:

[W]hen I got to Washington I discovered that even among young people, being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping.

For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary" is more or less important than a person whose title is "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Deputy to the Deputy Secretary," or "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary," or "Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary." (All of these are real federal job titles.)

Everybody in Washington always seems to know exactly how much status everybody else has. I don't know how they do it. Maybe they all get together in some secret location and sniff one another's rear ends. All I know is, back in my internship the summer of 1967, when I went to Washington parties, they were nothing like parties I'd become used to in college.

I was used to parties where it was not unusual to cap off the evening by drinking bourbon from a shoe, and not necessarily your own shoe. Whereas the Washington parties were serious. Everybody made an obvious effort to figure out where everybody else fit on the totem pole, and then spent the rest of the evening sucking up to whoever was higher up. I hated it. Of course, one reason for this was that nobody ever sucked up to me, since interns rank almost as low as members of the public. (footnote: Dave Berry: http://www.thisisawar.com/LaughterDaveWashington.htm)

The Gospel reading this week suggests that James and John, and the ten disciples who exploded at them in anger, would have fit quite nicely into the Washingtonian world that stratifies people into a hierarchy based upon their perceived power, worth, or status, and then pursues a zero-sum game of unbridled self-interest. Of course, Jesus's rebuke of the disciples warns us of our own tendency to do the same.

40' Colossus of Constantine "The Great".
40' Colossus of Constantine "The Great".

           In the book of Mark, three different times Jesus warns his twelve disciples about his destiny at the hands of political powers and raucous mobs in Jerusalem—betrayal, mockery, condemnation, suffering, violent execution, but then resurrection. Despite knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem, Mark pictures Jesus as resolutely determined: "They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid" (9:32; cf Luke 9:51). Right after each of the three predictions, the disciples responded to Jesus with objections, disbelief, fear, ignorance, and, incredibly, with requests for their own greatness and glory. After walking with Jesus for three years they demonstrated how badly they misunderstood the true nature of his redemptive mission.

           After his first "passion prediction," Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to prevent his sufferings: "You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man" (Mark 8:33). After his second prediction, the disciples argued about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34).

           After the third prediction (the Gospel for this week), in a power grab of remarkable audacity, presumption and exaggerated self-importance, James and John asked Jesus "to do for us whatever we ask. Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory" (10:37). The other ten disciples then implicated themselves by indignantly protesting, fearing that the two sons of Zebedee might gain some advantage over them. Matthew's account of this story includes a telling detail, that it was the mother of James and John who made this brazen request (Matthew 20:20–28).

           In response, Jesus made an ironic comparison. Their request for greatness, glory and power, he said, mimicked the petty Roman overlords who oppressed the Jews with taxes, who exploited them, and who would execute Jesus in a very few days. "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you." Rome's political power-mongers whom the disciples imitated were the same people they despised and resented.

           Jesus reversed and subverted this common pattern of human behavior. Not the domineering spirit of political power, not schemes to control and subjugate people for your own advantage, not the narcissistic grasp for glory, Jesus said, but the sacrificial will to serve, characterizes human greatness.

           His own life, teaching, death and resurrection were an extended demonstration of the true nature of human greatness. "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (10:45).

Jesus washes his disciples' feet.
Jesus washes his disciples' feet.

           A "ransom" liberates someone at the payment of a price. In secular antiquity, a prisoner of war or a slave, for example, could be redeemed by paying a ransom price. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the kopher is a sum of money paid for release and reconciliation, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

           As a constellation of interpretations emerged to understand just who Jesus was and what he did, central to them all was this idea of ransom—the conviction of early believers that Jesus was not a hapless victim, not a failed sage who over-played his hand, or not a rabble rouser crushed by Rome, but instead one who offered himself to God to redeem humanity.

           The Old Testament reading for this week provided early Christians (most all of whom were Jews) with the locus classicus for confessing Jesus as "a ransom for many."

Surely he took up our infirmities
   and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
   smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
   and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
   each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
   and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
   And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
   for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
   and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
   nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
   and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
   and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
   he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
   and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
   and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:4–12, NIV)

The Epistle of Diognetus from about the year 130 aptly described this as a "sweet exchange" whereby God "in pity for us took upon himself our sins, and himself parted with his own son as a ransom for us." Centuries later Martin Luther called this a "marvelous exchange" in which God takes our brokenness and we receive his wholeness.

St. Francis of Assisi Founder Statue by Carlo Monaldi, 1727.

St. Francis of Assisi Founder Statue
by Carlo Monaldi, 1727.

           Many wise people have observed how it is the insecure, fragile self that seeks to control, dominate, exploit, and manipulate others for its own advantage. Human experience tells us that such efforts are doomed to fail, because when they "succeed" they destroy others in the process. In the upside down world of Jesus, only the strongest sense of self, a self that neither grovels nor grasps, can resist chasing counterfeit notions of greatness. In imitating Jesus, as far as that is humanly possible, we serve others for their good rather than our own glory.

For further reflection

* Contemplate the last lines of the so-called Peace Prayer ascribed (erroneously) to Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226).

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) BreadAlive.com; and (3) SaintPetersBasilica.org.